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Veteran gives flight to
Wings Over Alberta website
The Calgary Herald, November 21st, 2003
by David Bly
(Copyright The Calgary Herald 2003)
EDMONTON - Dennis Wagner wanted to do a better job as a docent at the Glenbow Museum, so he set out to learn more of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.
Curiosity became a quest, and four years later he found himself with a massive collection of information and documents that form the basis of Wings Over Alberta, the latest website launched by the Heritage Community Foundation.
As a Glenbow docent, a volunteer guide, Wagner, now 87, would often be asked to speak to groups or classes who came to the museum's military section.
"I would speak about the RCAF in general and the BCATP in particular," he said. "It became clear to me that they knew little or nothing about that plan or period, but that they would be willing to learn. I took it upon myself to become better informed."
The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was conceived in 1939 to train pilots and other air crew from Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Many of the training facilities would be in Canada, with an abundance of open space for flight training far removed from the danger of enemy attack.
By the time the war was over, 360 training schools had been established on 231 sites in Canada. During the war, the BCATP trained more than 130,000 air crew members and built more than 100 aerodromes and landing fields in Canada, many of them on the Prairies. The program was staffed by more than 100,000 people.
Historian J. L. Granatstein called the training plan "the major Canadian military contribution to the Allied war effort."
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to Canada as "the aerodrome of democracy."
Some of Wagner's knowledge was personal -- he helped build some of the bases in Atlantic Canada, then later in the war trained at one of them as a navigator. He retired from the air force in 1967. But when students asked him about specific sites, he realized he didn't know enough and set out to visit all the sites he could find in Alberta.
Some have become municipal airports or industrial parks; others have disappeared altogether, their existence marked only by monuments. "I was able to tell them where the sites were, and show them photos," he said. "What was more important, I could show what each site looks like today."
"But I wasn't happy with that. I was answering only part of it. I thought I should put names and stories to the photos, so I started advertising throughout the Commonwealth."
That brought a flood of information and personal stories. "At first, it was designed only for local consumption," said Wagner.
But as the material poured in, he realized it would fill a book, and more. But getting it into manuscript form and finding a publisher seemed a daunting task.
Then he met Adriana Davies, executive director of the Heritage Community Foundation which, with the help of Industry Canada's Digital Collections Initiative, builds websites about Alberta's heritage.
Davies was excited about Wagner's work. "He was really concerned about passing it on in some way," she said. "He was thinking initially of a book, and I said, 'No, a website.' "
Industry Canada provided the funding for four interns working for 16 weeks to prepare Wagner's data for the website.
"Because he worked for the Glenbow, his work was done to archival standards," Davies said. "The site can reflect only a portion of his research, because there's so much."
But one of the advantages a website has over a book is that it not static, and Davies said with more funding, more can be added to the site.
"All of our websites are expandable," she said. Wagner said he's grateful to be involved with the Heritage Community Foundation.
"I call myself a horse and buggy man, so it's sort of overwhelming," he said. "Eventually, I hope it will come out in book form, but at the moment I'm quite happy having it on the Internet."
He said he has heard from people all over the world who have visited the site. "From all the feedback I've had, I'd say it has been very well received," he said.
The important thing is that the material is available "for researchers, historians and kindred spirits," he said. "My dream is to be advised that it's being used as research in colleges and universities."
He hopes, too, that high schools are using the resource.
"It was the interest shown mainly by the high school students that got me going," he said. "I always enjoyed being in their company. I found they were eager to learn." He said about 60 per cent of his material is on the website.
He has given printed copies, contained in several large binders, to Calgary city archives and to the Glenbow archives. Wings Over Alberta is one of 28 sites maintained by the Heritage Community Foundation, and Davies said three more are in the planning stages.
"The vision of the Heritage Community Foundation is that these websites will be configured as Alberta's online encyclopedia," she said. "We would like this to be our intellectual legacy for 2005."